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Brian Till
27 Jan 2010
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A Generation's Greatest Failure


This fall, the British government released transcripts of Cold War era tapes it planned to broadcast if the nation came under attack. "There is nothing to be gained by trying to get away," the pages read. "This country has been attacked by nuclear weapons."

Survivors are urged to save toilet water for drinking, to hoard enough food to last for several weeks, and to avoid leaving fallout rooms "for a moment longer than necessary."

It's inexplicable that we find ourselves climbing back atop the nuclear knife 60 years after the atomic bomb changed the world in an instant.

In the last year, Russia returned to flying strategic bomber routes over the Pacific, suggested placing missile defense systems in Cuba, and floated the idea of stationing bombers in Havana. A road map for North Korean disarmament has been plagued by disruptions and false starts.

Many of the academics and journalists closest to the Iranian issue concede that we've likely passed the threshold for stemming the tide, the program having become too political, now occupying an Apollo-like role in the collective national identity.

A half-century after Manhattan Project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer took pause, quoting the Bhagavad Gita, "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds," we find nine states in possession of nuclear weapons, and a looming scarcity of oil that ensures a resurgence of interest in the nuclear equation.

It is the shame of our fathers. It is one generation's greatest failing, and another's long neglected mantle.

A U.N. report released last summer projected a 75 percent chance that a terrorist group will acquire a nuclear weapon in the coming decade. While I'm not willing to resign our fate to such stiff odds, and while I don't feel that the chill of a second Cold War is inevitable, I do recognize the message the report forecasts: the imperative of now.

Today, there's enough nuclear material to produce a crude dirty bomb in more than 40 countries. The next administration will not have the luxury of drawn-out negotiations, nor the latitude of inconsequential failure. In 2009, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty will lapse, and Russian leadership has already asserted that no new treaty will be negotiated as long as the U.S. continues to pursue a missile shield in Eastern Europe.

It is a concession we will have to make.

More dangerous than a failed path of further reductions is the threat posed by failing to enlist Russia as an ally. Curbing proliferation is contingent upon unity within the nuclear community and a concerted effort to keep those that seek nuclear power from enriching themselves.

The return to nuclearism is an all but inevitable course due to concerns over climate change, the volatility of oil markets, and the inevitable rise in oil prices as reserves of light, sweet crude diminish.

The new administration needs to assemble an international system of nuclear stewardship. It's a plan that's been endorsed throughout the international community, one that can find root in Dwight D. Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace movement.

Iran, we should recall, insists that its program is peaceful in nature, aimed at making the nation energy independent. Despite being a major oil exporter, the state lacks the refineries necessary to satiate its own domestic needs and thus imports roughly half of the petrol consumed annually.

Iran has rejected offers, however, to be a part of such a stewardship, a system in which enriched fuel would be sold, imported, replenished, and recycled by a sponsoring state for cheaper than costs tied to enrichment. The rationale, not surprisingly, is political. Why would the regime be willing to make itself vulnerable by becoming reliant upon a foreign entity for power?

There in lies the challenge Barack Obama will have to address.

Building a model of the 21st century's inevitable reversion to nuclear power will require assembling a carefully monitored chapter of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which would assure that nuclear plants and materials are safeguarded at all times. And it will require guaranteeing a system in which no single nation — be it the U.S., China, Russia or any other member of the nuclear club — is able to leverage contracts to supply nuclear materials for political retribution.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was asked to comment on such a program while speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace this fall. After bumbling, Gates offered a disjointed statement, concluding with: "But I think this is kind of new territory for everybody. And to begin with, people are going to have to have to get comfortable talking about these kind of issues."

This devil was not hidden in the shadows; these challenges were insufferably foreseeable; for more than half a century, we allowed friends to quietly develop weapons technology and crossed our fingers, hoping that foes wouldn't have the tenacity to do the same.

Half a century after Hiroshima, we should be uncomfortable with the prospect of not vocalizing these notions, of not sitting down to a strident, realistic discussion about the nuclear future. We won't have the option of leaving this challenge to those that will follow.

Brian Till, one of the nation's youngest syndicated columnists, is a research associate for the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington. He can be contacted at To find out more about the author and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



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